Valentine’s Day is here again, as stores have been telling us for the past month, with piles of red-cellophane-wrapped chocolate and heart-shaped doilies in every window. This holiday—once an opportunity for husbands and wives to show their love and affection for each other, to bring back some of the romance that so easily disappears between diapers, bills, and driving lessons—has been transformed into a national day of sex.
Or at least that’s what the Victoria’s Secret ads and the local card shop’s red-tinted stock seem to indicate. I’m told to “indulge” myself in erotic lingerie, experience the world’s sexiest chocolate, make Valentine’s Day all about me by buying myself (of course) more unmentionables. It’s hard to find a Valentine’s Day card whose purchase could be recounted to your mother without embarrassment. But it’s all too easy to stock up on the day’s essentials—like fuzzy handcuffs—at the local CVS.
There’s something morally bankrupt about a culture that allows sex to be divorced from love and commitment, that embraces the mutual use of persons’ bodies as an ideal form of self-expression, and encourages its youth to turn their bodies into tools for their own pleasure—and objects for others’ gratification. The moral wrongs of our culture’s embrace of casual sex have already been expounded philosophically and empirically.
Dr. J. Budziszewski, for example, presents a philosophical case for chastity in On the Meaning of Sex, in a style reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Dr. Patrick Fagan has shown the benefits of chastity and marital fidelity to individuals and to families through social science research. Dr. Miriam Grossman has exposed the psychological and biological harms of casual sexual activity in her books Unprotected and You’re Teaching My Child What?
There’s no doubt that we need these arguments and resources to handle intellectual battles about sexual morality. We need to fight bad philosophy with good philosophy, and pseudo-science with honest science.
But these conversations—however thorough, nuanced, sophisticated, and accurate—will never be enough. We need to remember that the human person is body and spirit—not merely intellect. Drs. Budziszewski, Fagan, and Grossman acknowledge this in their writing, consistently expressing sincere compassion for the people whose stories they relate.
The human experience of sex isn’t theoretical. It is deeply personal—we don’t experience it in the abstract, but rather physically and emotionally, bodily and spiritually. Thus people don’t easily change their minds based on a few data points, or even the brute force of the better philosophical argument.
Most people aren’t looking for an intellectual battle about sexual morality. Not because they are opposed to intellectual discussions or lack the capacity or even disbelieve that sexual morality exists, but instead because of how we actually experience sex.
Nearly fifteen years ago, advancements in psychology helped us understand that moral reasoning about the value of human life falls flat when a woman’s unplanned pregnancy seems to her like a life-and-death decision, where emotional decisions often displace moral reasoning. From this example we learned that in situations that seem to threaten our very identity, we may override any moral understanding of the choices in front of us in an effort to preserve our identity.
Similarly, decisions about sex are deeply tied to our identity. To disavow one’s own behavior feels like a rejection of one’s identity, which makes it hard for many people to be open to a morally reasoned debate about sex.
Even in an intellectual forum, people easily conflate a philosophical critique of their actions with a judgment of their human worth. Perhaps this shouldn’t be the case. Perhaps we should be able to hear the difference between “this kind of behavior is wrong or harmful regardless of who does it” and “I judge thee for thy sins.” But the truth is that people don’t often hear the difference. And if we love our fellow men, the onus is on us to make sure they do.
We need to get our message right. To reach people effectively, especially those who aren’t sure that a sexual morality even exists, we need to meet them where they are. Today, a growing swath of the population falls into this group, as everyone in Generation X and younger has been indoctrinated from a young age in the twin philosophies of “if it feels good, do it” and “consent is all that matters."
Above all else, we need to treat peers with dignity and respect by asking questions, not in an effort to judge, but to love, listen, and understand. As “textbook” as situations may appear on the outside, everyone’s story is unique. Everyone’s decisions are complicated. Everyone’s heartache is real.
If we fail to see this in each and every person we hope to reach, we risk alienating everyone. Every person has a desire to love and be loved, to be valued as a man or a woman.
We shouldn’t create a false sense of intimacy with mere acquaintances, but we need to make sure our friends know that we love them. We need to ensure that that love is independent of their sexual choices. We need to trust and earn trust, to listen, support, and seek always to understand—not to be understood. We need to ask questions, guiding gently toward answers only when appropriate. We need to set an unapologetic example of what’s right. We need to tread that fine line between understanding and condoning, making it clear that the two are not equivalent. If we believe that the truth about human sexuality is written on our hearts, then we need to trust that a heart aware of being loved will arrive at the right conclusions when allowed to arrive there of its own accord—and not forced there.
It’s fairly natural—though not always easy—to get our message right with friends, because we love them naturally. Personal relationships are arguably the most important and effective vehicles through which hearts, minds, and behavior are inspired to change. But the real challenge in getting our message right comes when we turn our attention to the public square.
Public conversation about sexual morality should emphasize the dignity of all involved. It needs to avoid cheesiness or sounding out of touch. It needs to avoid blanket “you-can’t-do-X” statements. It also needs to avoid “you’ll-be-better-off-if-only” arguments. Promising everyone riches and happiness if only they choose a certain lifestyle (regardless of the validity of the correlations) will not win over young people, especially when they have been hit over the head with correlation-does-not-imply-causation since infancy and know full well that statistics mean nothing to the individual.
Presenting the message in a way that respects the dignity of the audience, and takes into account that these issues are grasped emotionally before they are understood logically, is no small task—and I can’t pretend to have the answers. At the Love and Fidelity Network, however, we recently began an effort that attempts to do just that in our annual Valentine’s Day campaign.
Our message, aimed at students who find themselves struggling in the hook-up culture, is simple: Young men and women are worth more than the hook-up culture tells them they are, and the hook-up culture forces students to settle for less than what they want and for less than who they are. Rather than explicitly tell students “you’re worth more than this” or throw statistics at them to argue that they would be better off physically, psychologically, or financially by making certain choices over others, we aim to help them reach those conclusions on their own.
Our message is one that asks challenging questions, exposing the harsh realities of the hook-up culture and highlighting the fact that students who have concerns about it are not alone in having such doubts. We want to help students realize that there isn’t something wrong with them, but rather something wrong with a culture that glorifies cheap sex. By highlighting certain paradoxes and posing key questions, the campaign respects the dignity of each viewer, encouraging him or her to reflect on his or her own experiences instead of telling them one thing or another. “Is this really all there is?” “Why do I want more?” “Is this what it means to be a man?” “Is there something wrong with me that this doesn’t make me happy?”
Our hope is that these personal reflections will spark, and guide, conversations in which students critically engage serious questions about our hyper-sexualized culture, and that over time and a series of reflections and questions, students will come willingly themselves to the right conclusions about the integrity of sex. The convictions that stick are the ones we arrive at ourselves.
This Valentine’s Day—and throughout the year—we need to keep human dignity in mind in both our personal conversations and the public square. We cannot fail to get our message right, that our culture’s embrace of casual sex is tragic. Too much is at stake: the happiness and wellbeing of young people, our marriage culture, the future of families through which society flourishes, and, indeed, our very dignity and the dignity of sex.
Caitlin Seery is Director of Programs for the Love and Fidelity Network.